Shakespeare in Hell: Should not have been published in its present form

Shakespeare in Hell Horrible Monday science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsShakespeare in Hell by Amy Sterling Casil

Shakespeare in Hell is an intriguing title. Think of all it can conjure up – allusions to Milton and Dante, who both had more luck finding stories in the darker realms of the afterlife, and with the villains of their pieces, than with an antiseptic realm of winged creatures playing harps, come to mind; one can imagine Shakespeare choosing Hell as a better stage for his plays and poetry. Or perhaps Shakespeare sinned with his Dark Lady, landing him in eternal flame. Or — well, the possibilities seem endless.

But Amy Sterling Casil has not taken full advantage of the myriad plotlines available to her. We are given no moral structure for this Hell, and no hint of a Deity meting out punishments and rewards. We never do learn precisely why Shakespeare is in Hell, though it does appear to have something to do with the Dark Lady, who is here given the identity of Emilia Bassano Lanier, who lived at roughly the same time as Shakespeare and was the first Englishwoman to assert herself as a professional poet. Nor are we explicitly told why Oscar Wilde is there; Casil apparently does not want to say straight out that being gay will land you in Hell, though she hints at it. There is no explanation for Edgar Allan Poe’s presence there either. Unaccountably, the other major terrestrial character who has a major role in this novella is H.R. Haldeman of Watergate fame, suggesting that God doesn’t forgive (despite the fact that Haldeman publically repented for his role in Watergate at the end of his life).

The moving force in the novel is Beelzebub, who has just consigned Isadora Duncan and Busby Berkeley to the Lake of Fire for failing to provide him with sufficient amusement. He needs something new to amuse him, something meatier. Haldeman, who rides his shoulder, suggests that he could have Julia Child grill a porterhouse (and why is she in Hell? No clue), but Beelzebub corrects him: he wants intellectual meat, a play or a novel. They head for the cave (an allusion to Plato? The author doesn’t follow through on this possibility) where ten thousand writers are all caged together without a single reader. (Don’t the writers ever read each other’s work? Every successful writer I’ve ever read about is an insatiable reader.) Beelzebub waves around three “Get Out of Hell Free” golden tickets, which he offers in exchange for a play. Wilde and Poe volunteer when Sophocles, Pope, Byron, Shelley and Shakespeare refuse to appear in response to Beelzebub’s summons. Beelzebub instructs them that he wants a play that improves on “Hamlet,” and he has some instructions in that regard, including that Hamlet should kill Claudius immediately. Once Beelzebub leaves, the two of them go off to find Shakespeare, as they feel they are not capable of writing a play themselves.

The novella meanders on from there, giving us brief glimpses of many authors, poets and playwrights, and in particular demonstrating how Emilia refuses to be ignored as a possible replacement for the missing Shakespeare. Shakespeare, Wilde and Poe all have their own moments of redemption that seem to come from nowhere and that do not seem to actually redeem them — and if they do, the mechanism of that redemption isn’t made clear. We see no play, no poetry, no writing, nothing that requires that the characters in this novella be masters of the written word. And one more mystery is never solved: what the heck does Bob Haldeman have to do with this?

Small presses, self-publishing, e-books and low prices have given the novella new life in this new digital age. Alas, they have also made it possible for authors to publish novellas that are not ready for the light of day. A good editor might have helped Casil shape something out of this morass of ideas and fragments of ideas. But this novella should not have been published in its present form.

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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  1. That sounds like something of a mess, Terry!

  2. It’s like an attempt to do a satire about creative people… and that’s as far as she got. What a tragic waste of a great title.

  3. Book sounds bad, but your review is great, Terry.

  4. Jim Bailey /

    Just a couple of factual corrections. Shakespeare in Hell originally appeared in the fantasy webzine Elysian Fiction, which with the dearth of all-fantasy outlets at the time, was able to publish top-notch fiction from not only Ms. Casil, but Mary Soon Lee, Steven Piziks, Laura Underwood, Jay Caselberg, Ron Collins, M. Bennardo, Tim Pratt, Jenn Reese and others I’m sure I’m forgetting because I don’t have my publication list in front of me, and was able to favorably compete in overall quality with Realms of Fantasy. In particular, since I was the only paying market at the time accepting novellas, the competition at that length was particularly fierce with everybody throwing their “I *need* to write this even though there’s no market for it” stories at me. So it passed an especially tough editorial test to make it to publication.

    The selection of subjects in Hell was hardly a matter of personal judgement on the author’s part, but an indication of the capriciousness and disinterest of God in that world. The fact that what to us seem like minor sins or non-sins can still get you sent to Hell is as reasonable a fictional conjecture as “hardly anybody truly deserves Hell”. And if you’re examining a collection of artists, you bring in a non-artist like Haldeman to do so, which is in addition to his role as a compelling “villain” that most readers are going to simply dismiss as unredeemable until the author starts showing that there is always more than 1 side to each individual.

    Shakespeare in Hell is simply one of those once-in-a-decade tour-de-force stories that I was very lucky and priviledged to get a chance to publish, so I’ve been very happy that it’s receiving a 2nd life through direct publishing.

    • If I may be so bold, there is this guy – Harlan Ellison?

      He wrote a story called “Hitler Painted Roses” that was rather more about the ability for someone to love another person so much that they were willing to sacrifice everything to prove that. God apparently was impressed by that sacrifice, and mentioned it to Goebbels, I believe.

      In much the same way, Ms. Casil uses allegory, satire, and a wicked sense of humor to paint a vivid picture of why people should follow their own dreams, regardless of the consequences of their actions.

  5. Thank you, Mr. Bailey, for the information that the novella was previously published. Unfortunately, the e-book I purchased from Amazon did not indicate any previous publication. I appreciate your correction.

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